Most conventionally managed dairy herds in the UK operate a system of mastitis control that places emphasis on the use of prophylactic treatments at the end of each lactation (dry cow therapy, DCT). In organic systems the routine use of prophylactic antibiotics is prohibited. A survey of organic livestock producers in the UK has revealed that dairy producers adopted a range of treatments, dominated by combinations of the therapeutic use of antibiotics and homeopathic remedies and homeopathic nosodes (Roderick et al.,1996). A detailed study of the incidence, treatment strategies and financial implications of mastitis in organic dairy herds in the UK is presently being conducted. This paper will focus on the methodologies being adopted and will present preliminary findings.
The study has been conducted on a sample of 16 organic and seven conventional herds. The sample of organic herds at the start of the study represented a significant proportion of the national organic herd. The data collection methods can be broadly categorized into the following components:
To date, a limited preliminary analysis of the data has been conducted and the trends can be summarized as follows:
This discussion will focus on the methodology adopted and its relevance to the study of animal health on organic farms. Whereas the epidemiological methods applied were similar to those adopted for the study of conventional systems, the informal interview methods proved to be particularly relevant to both the study of organic health control methods and the perception of disease amongst organic producers.
Since all of the conventional farms in the study adopted universal therapy and prophylaxis using antibiotics, the measure of veterinary inputs proved to be a straight forward recording process. Organic producers tend to use a wide range of techniques and applications. Detailing these was only possible through a process of interview, discussion and observation. For example, whereas some producers may see homeopathy as a straight forward substitute for antibiotics, others see this as a more holistic approach. This latter approach, requiring attention to detail and individual knowledge of each animal in the herd, does not lend itself to standard methods of measuring veterinary inputs.
Further to the detailed description of control methods, informal interviews were also important in determining farmer/herdsperson perception of disease. It has become clear that the attitude to the relationship between somatic cell count and milk quality is different between the organic and conventional sector. Whereas low levels of SCC is accepted conventionally, maximum levels amongst organic producers has a greater significance. This perception was also noted at farmers' meetings designed to disseminate the preliminary findings of the study.
It was concluded that whilst the informal interview techniques, together with mid-term feedback of research results to the participating farmers, may result in "research bias" in future data collection, the enhanced understanding of the system gained from this methodology is extremely valuable. In a situation where mainstream advice differs significantly from the organic approach, the producers themselves have to act as innovators of new technologies. It was suggested that a participatory approach in defining final research goals and in identifying farmer acceptability of potential research recommendations, would be particularly useful in this context. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methodologies that have been widely used in other farming systems research in the developing world, might prove to be of equal benefit to organic farming research generally and to animal health and welfare issues specifically.
Roderick, S., Hovi, M. and Short, N. (1996): "Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Farming: Research Priorities", AHT Report, University of Reading.